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Rules of the Road: The Homeowner's Guide to Design and Construction

Know the common pitfalls homeowners fall into and how to avoid them.

Know what is included in the contract

This goes for both the design contract and the construction contract. Many of the disappointments that homeowners experience originate with having expectations outside of the agreed-upon scope of work. 

Refrain from making changes during construction

Ideally, there wouldn't be any changes during construction but some changes are inevitable. In the event of a change, you should understand the implications of the change. Everything in a building is connected to multiple other things. A change in any one part can cascade down through dozens of other aspects of the building. Changes should be recorded as a change order complete with the difference in cost, time, or both. The parties should all approve of the change in writing before it is carried out. Changes almost always cause delays in the schedule so be prepared for extending the finish date.

Beware the low bidder

Chances are the low bidder left something out, is reducing the quality of the build, or is planning on making their money later. Low bidders will argue with you and blame others for their shortcomings. Hire the professional you like and trust who has a demonstrated track record of delivering projects most similar to yours.

Hire the right architect

And the right builder. Not all professionals are suitable for all jobs. See their work, get references, and ask about their approach. 

The sooner and better your communication is, the easier your project will be

Don't try to hide your actual budget. The design is tailored to your budget and if it isn't accurate you will miss your mark. Don't try to tell your architect that you just want a small scope of work done and then gradually add to it. Get everything out that you wish to accomplish in the first meeting. Otherwise, the process will be slowed and the architect will have to rework the plans. Refrain from saying you don't care about something in the hopes that it will speed up the process and then later decide you do care. Architects put projects together but you ultimately make all the decisions. Don't change the goals of the project after you've already established them. If you do, the plans will have to be revised. Refrain from waiting until construction to care about the design. The further you are along in a project, the more costly and difficult it is to change things.


All of these common behaviors lead to a more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming project. 

Do not talk directly to the subcontractors and laborers

Direct all of your communication to the general contractor's designated contact person. The protocol is there for a reason. You don't want to give instructions to a worker that contradicts their contract, changes their scope of work, or interfere with the work in any other way. By talking to subs directly, you are likely increasing cost and time without realizing you are. 

Take your concerns to the person who can address it

There is no use complaining to someone who can't fix the problem. In even the simplest project, things will come up. Take care to not complain to the architect about the contractor and vice versa. Every problem is fixable but not if the right person isn't made aware. 

Express yourself

Do express yourself if you don't understand something or don't like something. As a designer, I am not going to be offended and my feelings won't be hurt. There is more than one right answer.

Hire your architect for construction phase services

Your architect is your agent during construction. She is professionally trained in interacting with contractors, suppliers, and jurisdictions and knows the rules of the road. She can help ensure you get the building you desire and that the budget and schedule are adhered to.

Know the contract types

Construction contracts can be structured in more than one way. Know the difference between a hard bid and a labor and materials contract. Have an attorney who specializes in construction contracts review your contract to make sure your interests are covered.

Make sure the contracts and business models of the architect and contractor are compatible

Contracts outline roles and responsibilities. Don't sign a contract with the contractor that doesn't coordinate with the contract you have with the architect. Make sure the contractor knows if you have hired the architect for construction phase services or not. The contractor needs to know if they can reach out to the architect and if so, how to do so. Refrain from hiring an architect for design and then hiring a design-build firm with their own designers on staff for construction. There will be confusion about roles and responsibilities and you will have to be the one to sort it all out. 

Avoid designing during construction

Contractors build what is on the plans. That's what their contract is for. If you start changing the plans, you change the contract and you can expect your costs and schedule to increase. Between the designers, engineers, builders, suppliers, and inspectors, there are many people involved in even small projects. The plans are the tools that everyone uses to communicate. If you make changes to the design, you should have the plans updated and redistributed so everyone can follow along. 

Both spouses need to be present at all the design meetings

If a couple is doing a construction project and one of them isn't present in the design meetings, they cannot expect to comment on and direct the work later. Design is a creative process whereby the designer identifies the needs and requirements of the client and users and assembles those requirements into a proposed solution. The designer then gets feedback and iterates the design until it is right. Introducing new requirements and comments later in the process starts the process over again.

Do not micromanage

Let the professionals do the job they are hired to do. If there is a problem, bring it up to the supervisor and if possible, do so during a regular meeting. Then allow the professional to solve the problem. There are already established ways to manage everything that comes up during a construction project that everyone is used to. Use the established procedures.

Be leery of substitutions during construction

If a material substitution is proposed, the contractor should provide evidence that the substituted product meets or exceed the specs of the original. If a proposed substitution is less costly, make sure the cost savings are reflected in your invoices and the contractor isn't pocketing the difference. 

Hold regular meetings during construction

Having regular meetings gives team members a place to come together and address previous concerns and discuss what will happen going forward. Having regular meetings is a proactive approach which is far more pleasant and easier on everyone involved than the opposite, the reactive approach. 

Refrain from drama

Construction sites can be gossipy places and gossip is poison in a workplace, leading to undermined leadership, decreased productivity, and low morale. 

Follow a pay application schedule that is closely aligned with the work

As a homeowner, your money is your leverage. Don't give it up too quickly. Contractor payment should be tied to the actual work completed and should be figured on a percentage basis with retainage. For example, if 50% of the drywall contract is complete, the pay application should be for 50% of the contract amount minus a retained amount, say around 5-10%. Enough to get them back to finish up or fix anything that wasn't done right. Retainage is held until the end of the project in order to manage the risks associated with poor workmanship and incomplete work. Payments shouldn't differ too much from the estimates given and if they are, supporting evidence must be provided.

Know the difference between a contractor and a builder

A builder is someone with plenty of hands-on field experience. A contractor is a contract holder who hires subcontractors to carry out the work. Sometimes they are the same person. Skill and ability can vary greatly so be sure to look for who can best fulfill your needs.

"Becky is the brains that made the project work."

                      - Kevin

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